Clinics: Learning to Practice Skillfully and with Integrity

 By Staff, William & Mary Law School

Recognizing that legal education must include preparing students for both the practice of law and membership in the profession, the Law School added three new clinics this year - the Elder Law Clinic, the Appellate and Supreme Court Clinic, and the Virginia Coastal Policy Clinic - that now provide a clinical experience for 150 students annually. Students in the school's nine clinics provide more than 14,000 hours annually in pro bono work to underserved clients that include the elderly, children with special needs, and veterans.

"The professional growth and commitment to service we see in our clinic students each year is inspiring," said Clinical Associate Professor of Law Patricia E. Roberts, who is director of Clinical Programs at the Law School.  "The skills they learn here have far-reaching impacts on our community, and will continue to benefit our graduates' communities after they join the bar. William & Mary is committed to continued growth of its clinical program so that every student in every class has an opportunity for the rewarding educational experience of representing clients prior to graduation."

Clinic students practice the skills they will need following graduation through direct client representation under a managing attorney, a licensed lawyer who guides student learning through substantive training, development of case theory, and execution of representation activities with feedback and reflection meant to aid their professional development. Students typically handle multiple client matters during their clinic semester. Third-year student Jordan Evans said clinics offer students "a chance to interview real clients, solve real problems, and appear before real judges.  There is absolutely no better way for a law student to get a feel for the true practice of law."

Clinical opportunities at the Law School are varied. Students interested in criminal law can investigate claims of actual innocence in the Innocence Project Clinic, pouring over trial transcripts, interviewing clients and witnesses, and exploring the possibility that DNA evidence from long ago may still be available to help further an exoneration claim. Law School alumna Mariel Murrey '12 said working in the Innocence Project Clinic while in law school gave her "the invaluable opportunity to interact with clients, problem solve, and work intimately with our criminal justice system."

The Domestic Violence Clinic educates residents in domestic violence shelters about legal issues and their rights, and helps victims obtain protective orders against their abusers. The Federal Tax Clinic aids low-income taxpayers in their disputes with the IRS, disputes that often can have catastrophic monetary consequences to people living paycheck to paycheck. Students in the Legal Aid Clinic might find themselves arguing a case regarding a landlord-tenant dispute, or handling a divorce, or representing a client in a claim for unemployment benefits. The cases include a variety of legal matters, but the impact in all of them is considerable, noted Professor Roberts, because the clients are people who would not otherwise be able to afford representation.

Two of the law school's in-house clinics are celebrating their fourth anniversary, the Lewis B. Puller, Jr. Veterans Benefits Clinic (VBC) and the Parents Engaged for Learning Equality (PELE) Special Education Advocacy Clinic. In the former, students represent veterans in their claims for benefits related to service-connected disabilities, pensions, discharge upgrades, retroactive retirements and active duty medical separations. Working in partnership with Virginia Commonwealth University, the VBC students learn to work in an interdisciplinary capacity with students studying psychology, offering veteran clients a holistic approach to their legal and medical challenges. The VBC has extended this interdisciplinary model across institutions and disciplines, and formed the Helping Military Veterans through Higher Education Consortium, which expands the assistance available to the VBC's clients, while also enriching the educational experience of the participating law students. "This clinical experience is what truly reminded me about why I chose to come to law school," said K.N. Barrett, a third-year law student who also holds a master's degree from William & Mary's Thomas Jefferson Program in Public Policy.  "Working with actual clients and seeing the effects of the work I am doing is extremely rewarding and knowing that I am doing my part to help those who serve our country has been the highlight of my law school experience."

In the PELE Clinic, students assist families of children with special needs in child-study, eligibility and individualized education program (IEP) meetings in order to obtain the education to which they are entitled under the law. Law students also participate in mediation, due process and formal complaint procedures, and engage in community education and outreach sessions that empower parents with legal knowledge and advocacy strategies. A current clinic student, Kevin Jules '13, noted that the clinic enabled him "to use and develop practical skills such as interviewing actual clients, conducting research, advocating for clients, and tracking my time spent, all under the supervision of an experienced attorney trained in the area of Special Education Law. The experience has been truly incredible!"  Alexzandria Poole '13 said the clinic gave her insight into the value of communications skills: "Personalities, interpersonal relationships, and group dynamics influence outcomes as much as applying legal research to a particular issue does. If you don't know how to deal with and relate to people - whether it is your client, teachers, or administrators, etc. - you won't be able to be an effective advocate."

In order to accommodate increased student interest in practice-ready preparation, William & Mary launched three new in-house clinics this year: the Elder Law Clinic, the Appellate and Supreme Court Clinic, and the Virginia Coastal Policy Clinic. As a result of a generous start-up grant from the Beazley Foundation, students in the Elder Law Clinic (ELC) assist low-income seniors in matters such as competency, nursing home issues, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and other public benefit programs. Under the supervision of the ELC's managing attorney, the free legal services the students provide include drafting of powers of attorney, advance medical directives and living wills, simple estate planning, creation of guardianships and conservatorships, and estate recovery issues. Patricia Kim '13, who currently is enrolled in the ELC, said:  "I have learned to draft documents that drastically shape these clients' futures.  One phrase can change the meaning of an entire document - something that may not be readily apparent in a traditional exam or an attorney-client simulation.  It was intimidating at first, but I've grown more confident in my research, drafting, and communication skills as a direct result of being in this clinic."

The Appellate and Supreme Court Clinic students are hard at work identifying cases from across the country that pose unique issues related to the First and Fourth Amendments, and for which they can brief and argue the appeal. In their first class of the semester they mooted a Montana attorney by Skype, aiding him in his preparation for oral argument. Since then, they have been reviewing transcripts and court records and working on their first appellate briefs, honing their litigation strategies and their legal research and writing skills under the supervision of a skilled appellate attorney. Pamela Palmer, a 3L, commented that "there is so much practical knowledge taught in the Appellate and Supreme Court Clinic.  It truly bridges the gap between 'lecture-listening' and learning how to be a lawyer.  My partner and I filed our first Notice of Appeal a couple of weeks ago for a real case that affects real lives." 

With significant funding and support from the Virginia Environmental Endowment, the Virginia Coastal Policy Clinic (VCPC) will offer students the opportunity to engage in the study of challenges facing our coastal communities, beginning in spring 2013. Through a partnership with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, students will incorporate the latest science related to environmental issues into legal and policy recommendations and the creation of adaptive strategies for those communities. Students will engage in interviewing, research, writing, public speaking, and interdisciplinary collaboration with scientists and public policy experts, to provide the most informed and objective recommendations to localities facing such challenges as recurrent flooding and sea level rise. Given that William & Mary is near to a metropolitan area that ranks 10th in the world, and 2nd only to New Orleans in the United States, in assets that face the risk of increased flooding due to sea level rise, VCPC and its students are anticipated to play a major role in the assessment of that risk and the creation of adaptation strategies for the area.

Students enrolled in clinics often are reminded of why they want to be lawyers. Ryen Rasmus, a 2012 graduate of the Law School, noted: "I routinely tell people that my clinic work was the most important experience I had in law school. On graduation, I felt - and still feel - that I could hang out my shingle confidently and begin a practice from scratch, since I know that if I could handle a case as complex as the ones I'd been assigned in the VBC, I could handle pretty much anything that came in through the door."

Garrett Trego '12 now practices law for a large firm in Philadelphia and also found his clinic experience valuable in preparing him to practice law: "On top of client relation skills, I think my particular clinic experience [in the VBC] helped prepare me for effective document review and due diligence work.  Again, the documents are different - medical and service records in the clinic; contracts and business communications in practice - but I felt comfortable dealing with facts and information in a high volume of documents thanks to managing my clients' cases in the VBC.  The work that I performed writing briefs and letters in the VBC was great practice for composing briefs, building arguments, and compiling evidence as well."

Professor Roberts said that she is proud that the clinical program prepares students to practice skillfully and with integrity, and does so while nurturing the citizen-lawyer ideals of duty and service to others.

As Bryan Charles Moore '14, has discovered, "the clinic work . . . allows you to see how you are able to adequately handle actual legal work and how you can make an impact on the community with your law degree."